A staggering 14 of the 24 fighters competing at the UFC's first ever event in Sweden next month are European. They include home hero Alexander Gustafsson, England's Brad Pickett, Germany's Dennis Siver and Italy's Alessio Sakara. Not bad going. Moreover, this upcoming event on April 14, televised live on Fuel in the USA, marks the first time the UFC have invaded mainland Europe since last November's show in Birmingham, England.
To commemorate this return, I propose tilting the spotlight above the leading Europeans currently plying their trade in the UFC. Long considered fall guys of the combat sport world, European fighters have sometimes been unfairly and wrongly accused of being overprotected, travelling badly, flopping on the big stage and requiring subtitles to be easily understood. It is all just an urban legend, however, as you will soon come to realise upon scanning the list below.
Ten of the best Europe has to offer in 2012:
10. Stefan Struve
Despite standing at a gargantuan 6'11", Holland's Stefan Struve doesn't exactly carry the look of an intimidating heavyweight force. A friendly smile, apologetic eyes and doughy body help make up approximately 250 pounds, but underestimate the man known as 'Skyscraper' at your peril. He fights with an enthusiasm lost on many of his heavyweight peers and he's happy to push the pace from beginning to end, whether standing or on the ground. Always desperate for the finish, Struve is as exciting as any grappler in the division when he secures a takedown or pulls guard on an opponent.
Dramatic victories against the likes of Denis Stojnic, Chase Gormley Christian Morecraft and Pat Barry have helped create this cult hero and, though the aforementioned names might not comprise of winner's row, it's the manner in which Struve is claiming these scalps that resonates. Often seemingly on the brink of collapse, Struve takes great pleasure in teasing the watching audience, before pulling the rug from beneath them at the very last moment. A real pleasure to watch. Oh, and he's still only 24.
9. Dennis Siver
If you haven't seen a Dennis Siver spinning back-kick, then you simply aren't a fan of mixed martial arts. Let's be honest, he does it every damn time he fights. It's not hard to spot. It's also one of the reasons why Siver remains a firm fan favorite, both at home in Germany and further afield. Always aggressive and always keen to stand and bang, crisp striker Siver has scored a number of eye-catching wins in his five-year UFC career. In fact, were it not for a recent defeat to Donald Cerrone, one could make the claim that Siver is as good as ever right now. Back-to-back wins against Spencer Fisher, Andre Winner, George Sotiropoulos and Matt Wiman even amounted to some enthusiastic fellows discussing Siver as a possible title challenger down the line. He's won eight of his last ten fights and possesses a knack for upsetting the applecart.
8. Ross Pearson
Winner of season nine of The Ultimate Fighter, England's Ross Pearson has, in many ways, been groomed to become Michael Bisping 2.0, a ballsy Brit who stuck it to the Americans and then took on the world as part of the UFC. Far less outspoken than Bisping, the reserved former bricklayer has allowed his fighting to speak for itself so far in a two-and-a-half year UFC career. After leaving the TUF house in 2009, 'The Real Deal' went on to defeat Aaron Riley and Dennis Siver, before slipping up against Cole Miller in something of a minor upset. Since then, however, he has outhustled Spencer Fisher over the distance, lost a close and controversial decision to fancied Brazilian Edson Barboza and then dropped down to featherweight to start a run at the title down there. He defeated Junior Assuncao to herald his arrival in the 145-pound division last time out in December. As technically sound as any boxer in the UFC today, this 27-year-old can rightly expect to leave his mark on his new weight class.
7. Cheick Kongo
The ultimate kill-or-be-killed heavyweight, Cheick Kongo is every bit as likely to end up spreadeagled on the canvas as he is winning fights via knockout himself. That's just the way the Parisian rolls. Vulnerability and obscene punch power have helped make him this way. Last month he was iced by heavy-handed slugger Mark Hunt just 131 seconds into the first round, yet before that he found success against Matt Mitrione and, most notably, Pat Barry, in what was quite possibly the greatest comeback in UFC history. Out on his feet, eyes elsewhere, Kongo, at the point he was about to be finished, somehow summoned the strength to rally back and starch Barry with a hail mary uppercut just moments later. The fight only lasted two-and-a-half minutes, but went some way to encapsulating just what makes the Adonis-like Frenchman such an eminently watchable heavyweight.
6. Terry Etim
Unfortunately on the receiving end of the head-kick heard around the world and, therefore, a permanent fixture of 2012 highlight reels, Terry Etim may take some time to rebound from January's shocking defeat to Edson Barboza. But, regardless of the severity of that loss, Etim has proven, over the course of five years, just what an outstanding talent he is. Lest we forget, the lanky Liverpudlian pieced together four straight wins through 2008 and 2009, beating the likes of Sam Stout and Shannon Gugerty en route, and even secured a stunning 17-second submission of Eddie Faaloloto the last time the UFC visited his home country of England. Sure, he still has a way to go, and yes, that loss to Barboza will perhaps forever haunt him, but there can be little doubt Etim is one of the most continually exciting and most aesthetically pleasing fighters in the UFC today.
5. Brad Pickett
Brad Pickett received an unexpected shock the last time the UFC visited Europe. What was supposed to be a homecoming victory against an unheralded Brazilian turned out to be a devastating defeat to a rampaging Renan Barao. It wasn't planned, it wasn't pretty, but it happened. Still, that result doesn't make Pickett a run-of-the-mill fighter, nor does it render his many past achievements as pointless afterthoughts. Remember, the 33-year-old from London had lost only one of his last eleven fights before running into Barao and had firmly cemented his standing as one of the very best bantamweights in the world. A staple of the now defunct WEC, Pickett scored wins over the likes of Demetrious 'Mighty' Mouse Johnson, Ivan Menjivar and Kyle Dietz during his time with the organisation. He may have since lost to a special talent in Barao, but Pickett will still figure prominently in the bantamweight shuffle from here on out. That's a guarantee.
If we're talking pure talent and potential, Sweden's Alexander Gustafsson may well be as good as it gets right now in Europe. Yes, he's that promising. In fact, since losing an early UFC bout to Phil Davis, the lean and lanky Stockholm native has been pretty much unstoppable, defeating the likes Cyrille Diabete, James Te Huna, Matt Hamill and Vladimir Matyushenko, all within the scheduled distance. Four of his six UFC bouts have ended in the very first round, and Gustafsson has yet to even travel the full three-round distance in his professional career. Still just 25 years of age, Gustafsson has already carved a reputation as a powerful striker and a fearsome grappler, the ideal combination for any fast-rising mixed martial artist. And, should he defeat Brazil's Thiago Silva in Sweden on April 14, some may soon start whisper about Gustafsson as a possible opponent for the reigning UFC light-heavyweight champion, a certain Jon 'Bones' Jones.
Whether he likes it or not, Michael Bisping has taken on the title of Mr. Europe for the better part of six years, acting as the standard by which most Americans rate the talent level of those across the pond. Thankfully, England's Bisping is more than good enough to keep his territory's reputation intact. After all, since winning season three of The Ultimate Fighter, Bisping has campaigned at a world-class level within the UFC for a number of years, losing only to Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen, Rashad Evans and Wanderlei Silva along the way. Hardly a disgrace, and Bisping is well within his rights to dispute three of those four losses. Ultimately, though, he's far from just a gallant British loser, and has also scored top wins against the likes of Chris Leben, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Dan Miller and Denis Kang. Furthermore, 'The Count' has been the reason for some of the UFC's most spine-tingling and ear-shattering fight night atmospheres, and, if you've yet to see Bisping fight in Manchester, you're yet to learn the meaning of home support.
Born in Aarhus, Denmark, but based in Las Vegas for much of his professional career, Martin Kampmann is a well-rounded mixed martial artist gifted enough to compete with the world's best as both a middleweight and welterweight. He has had plenty of success in both divisions, in fact, beating the likes of Thales Leites, Drew McFedries and Jorge Rivera as a 185lber and then Carlos Condit, Paulo Thiago Rick Story and Thiago Alves in the 170-pound division. As you can see from that form line, though a formidable middleweight, Kampmann has enjoyed the majority of his standout wins as a sharp-shooting welterweight, and is now somebody as well-versed on the ground with submissions as he is on his feet with kicks and punches. Having weaved his European roots with American grounding and development, 'The Hitman' is as versatile as any mixed martial artist out there today.
The laid-back Dutchman with the killer kicks, Alistair Overeem could soon become Europe's first ever UFC world heavyweight champion, should he defeat current king Junior Dos Santos in May. Given the power he generates, in addition to his wealth of experience, one would have to give him a decent shot at dislodging the Brazilian puncher at the top of the pile. After all, Overeem has been competing professionally as a mixed martial artist since 1999 and boasts nearly 50 bouts to his name. Not only that, Overeem has also expanded his combat sport wings and, in 2010, became the first fighter in history to hold world titles in both mixed martial arts and K-1 kickboxing. That, my friends, is no small feat. The self-styled 'Demolition Man' is also unbeaten in 12 straight MMA bouts and is fresh off a first round beatdown of former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Two years ago Dan 'The Outlaw' Hardy could present a strong and valid case for topping a list such as this. He was on a hot streak of four straight UFC victories and on the verge of a shot at Georges St-Pierre's world title. Since then he hasn't been able to win a fight, and his run of defeats currently stands at four. Hardy hopes to get back to winning ways against Duane Ludwig in May, and prove once again that good fighters don't become bad overnight.
Submission wizard Paul Sass is unbeaten in twelve mixed martial arts bouts and has achieved seven of those victories via triangle choke, a run which has led to the move now being coined the 'Sassangle'. This Liverpool native has won his opening two UFC bouts by first round submission and appears well on his way to creating a noteworthy career in the organisation's lightweight division.
Germany's Pascal Krauss, currently sitting at 10-0, also carries a perfect unbeaten record, but has been plagued by injuries and inactivity since November 2010. He defeated Paul Scanlon on his UFC debut, in his native Germany, then ran into fighter's block. He is now expected to meet John Hathaway, another of Europe's finest mixed martial artists, on May 5 in New Jersey. England's Hathaway is a talented former rugby star who holds UFC wins over Diego Sanchez and Rick Story.
A final nod to veterans Alessio Sakara, Igor Pokrajac and Vladimir Matyushenko, who have all played their part in boosting the profile of European mixed martial arts by way of the UFC. They've also been performing admirably of late. Sakara has won three of his last four, including a dramatic stoppage of James Irvin and an upset victory over Thales Leites, while Pokrajac recently defeated both Krzysztof Soszynski and Todd Brown via first round knockout. The 41-year-old Matyushenko, of course, last year rolled back time and knocked out highly-regarded contender Jason Brilz in just twenty seconds.